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The Life of Jesus - Series 4: Episode 11

Giving to the poor

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 6:1-4

Jesus challenges the motivation for giving. Is it for others to see, or for God? This is the first of three connected spiritual disciplines for Christians.

Jesus challenges the motivation for giving. Is it for others to see, or for God? This is the first of three connected spiritual disciplines for Christians.


Hello, welcome to Episode 11 in this Series 4. We're going to talk today about giving to the poor. We're going to be studying Matthew 6: 1 - 4.

Introduction and Recap

I hope you've been with us on the journey so far, as we've been studying the Sermon on the Mount. It's an incredibly demanding and exciting challenge to focus in on the call to discipleship as Jesus defined it in this early part of his ministry. He'd been travelling around Galilee; he'd established himself as a prophet and a teacher; he'd gathered disciples; he'd just appointed his 12 Apostles on this very same occasion. Now he was delivering to them, as disciples, teaching about how to live as followers of Jesus. So far, we've studied three different sections in the Sermon on the Mount. We started with looking at attitudes, the Beatitudes famously, the first few verses of Matthew 5 and there's a parallel passage in Luke, which is another part of that teaching. Then Jesus explained the essential relationship between his teaching and the Law of Moses, in Matthew 5: 17 - 20, where he said he wasn't going to abolish the Law of Moses, he was going to fulfil it. That's the second section. That's just a very short teaching which explains what he's going to do next and in the third section which we've just finished, there are six different teachings which we've divided into six different episodes, which contrast and compare something stated in the Law of Moses and something that Jesus teaches, in order to define how we apply those things and he used the expression, very often, ‘You've heard it was said, but I say unto you’, and he either changed things or deepened things, or he contradicted some extra teachings that have been added that weren't in the Law of Moses. We've looked at all sorts of issues like sexual ethics, anger, murder, how to deal with opponents, and loving your enemies. We've looked at oath taking. It's been a challenging but very important foundational part of our understanding of the Sermon on the Mount.

Now we move on in chapter 6, and in the next three episodes Jesus teaches in a slightly different way. What he does in these three episodes is, he identifies three of the major outward religious practices of Judaism in his day, and he explains how they are fulfilled and demonstrated in Christian faith, as his disciples and followers. The first of these is giving to the poor. That's the topic we're going to look at in this episode. Then he goes on, in the second section, in the next episode, to talk about prayer and the distinction between public and private prayer, and how to pray, and in the third section, he talks about fasting - going without food - which was a practice that was commonplace and encouraged in Judaism in those days. He's going to talk about giving to the poor, prayer and fasting - three regular religious practices of the day. But in each case, he's going to change things that were accepted in his day. Let's start by looking at the text in question for this episode, Matthew chapter 6: 1 - 14.

‘“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”’

Matthew 6:1-4, NIV
Giving to the Poor in Jesus' Day

The context here is that giving to the poor was a regular part of Jewish religious practice. People begged on the streets, as they do in many parts of the world today. The simplest way for a poor person to get access to much-needed finance is to beg. There were beggars and paupers on the street, sick people who weren't able to work, calling out for donations and money. Amongst religious Jews, it was very common that they would make a big public demonstration of the fact that they were giving money to people. They would do this very much in public and they would do it hoping that people would see the gifts that they were making. As Jesus said here, their motivation was primarily to receive the honour of other people. Many of the people who acted like this were in fact quite rich. We know for a fact that many of the Pharisees - one of the religious groups that Jesus Christ clashed with frequently, who were very dominant in Jewish society at the time - were quite wealthy. To make these donations in public wasn't particularly costly to them and it gained public recognition and honour. They might do it in the synagogue; they might do it on the street so that people can see that they were being generous to the poor.

In fact, there's a very interesting example of this process, which we see described by Jesus at the end of his life, when he's in the Jewish Temple just before his arrest, in the last few days of his earthly ministry. In Luke  21, there is an example of this process that Jesus is identifying in this text here in Matthew 6. In the Temple, there was at that time a particularly large chest or box, in which people were invited to make their donations into the Temple treasury. Some of this was supposed to go to the poor but it also went for other uses in the Temple and it says in Luke 21: 1,

‘As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the Temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small coins’.

Luke 21:1-2, NIV

He goes on to make a point about how generous she was and how lacking in generosity the rich were, but the point is that this giving process was public. It was designed to be public. As you went into the Temple to worship, you would give your coins very publicly into the chest that was put there for the purpose. Rich people could easily make donations but it's their motivation that Jesus is concerned about. In those days in Israel, and throughout the Roman Empire, we know from historical research that about 50% of people in any town, or city, or area would be living just on the breadline, or in severe poverty and deprivation. 50% of the population. We also know that there was virtually no welfare facilities - no support from the state authorities - and very little in terms of charitable support. There were some in Israel, but very little in the rest of the Roman Empire. So with 50% of people in significant economic need, the issue of poverty was very much dominant and important all the time. A response had to be made.

Giving to the Poor in the Old Testament

In order to think about this more strategically, it's also worth looking at the Old Testament background. In the Law of Moses, for example in Deuteronomy 15: 4, it says:

‘There need to be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you’.

Deuteronomy 15:4, NIV

In other words, there'll be enough resources for everyone and then going on to verse 11, it says:

‘There will always be poor people in the land, therefore I command you to be openhanded towards your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.’

Deuteronomy 15:11, NIV

There's enough provision but not enough distribution even in Israel in the Old Testament times. That's a very interesting perspective and that applies to almost all societies even today. There is enough provision but not enough distribution because wealth tends to accumulate in the hands of a few people in any society; poverty still remains. In the Old Testament, there was a remedy for poverty. The remedy for poverty was not just individual acts of generosity but something built into the structure of society. Every 50 years, according to Leviticus 25, a number of social changes had to take place in Israel. The land was distributed amongst all the tribal families, so that every family was supposed to have a landholding but very often, they lost connection with their land over a period of time - through poverty, or through illness, or through some negative thing that happened. So every 50 years, land that had been taken by others, had to be returned to the original family. Also people who had become bonded labourers, or slaves, because of becoming so poor, had to be given their freedom. People who had got themselves into debt were allowed to be remitted their debts so they didn't have to pay that debt in the 50th year. It was called the Year of Jubilee and was a major feature of the way the Law of Moses functioned, in order to deal with poverty.

We can see that poverty is a very important issue in the Bible, and in the Old Testament, and as we go through other parts of the Old Testament we'll see a number of examples of how people who followed God, are called to be generous and kind-hearted to people in need. Here's a few examples Psalm 41: 1,

‘Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the Lord delivers them in times of trouble.’

Psalm 41:1, NIV

Or think about Proverbs 19 verse 17:

‘Whoever is kind to the poor, lends to the Lord and he will reward them for what they have done.’

Proverbs 19:17, NIV

Or consider this, in the prophet Isaiah 1: 17,

‘Learn to do right; seek justice; defend the oppressed; take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the cause of the widow’.

Isaiah 1:17, NIV

All the way through the Old Testament, in different ways, concern for the poor was built into Judaism. Individual Jews were called to be generous and to stand up for people who are poor and oppressed.

Motivation to Give

Jesus encourages this attitude and these actions very strongly in Christian disciples. He wants those who follow him, to be those who are generous and kind to people in need. The issue is motivation. It's very easy for the rich to be charitable, for the rich to show off the fact that they are giving money to the poor, and even today in the modern world, we see this happen frequently, where people who have plenty of money get into the media, and make pronouncements about what they're going to give away. It can be very significant amounts of money if they're super-rich, and that's a good thing to do in itself, but the motivation is what counts.

Jesus distinguishes here between two very important issues concerning motivation. This issue comes up, when he talks about prayer and about fasting, as well. The same issue: are we doing things to please other people and to gain their respect and honour, or are we doing things out of love and obedience to God who is our heavenly Father? Jesus talks, very particularly in these early parts of chapter 6, about our relationship with our heavenly Father, as the key motivator. He uses this very strange expression here, that when we give to the needy, verse 3,

‘“Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”’.

Matthew 6:3, NIV

This is an example of a form of speech called, ‘hyperbole’ - an exaggerated way of expressing something just to draw our attention to what he's saying. ‘Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.’ It's hyperbole; it's not possible. The human brain connects the left and the right hand together; they're working together at all times. The hyperbole tells us something important - secrecy and discretion in giving, is fundamental to Christian discipleship. When we are giving to other people, we should not be seeking the honour and the respect of others in the act of giving. Sometimes they have to know what we've given, for practical reasons but for the most part, most of the time, nobody needs to know. Jesus points out that the person who knows and needs to know, whom you're seeking to please, is your heavenly Father in heaven. He sees what you do in secret, and he brings his reward. Christian discipleship moves away from doing things just for an external reason. It's based on our relationship with our heavenly Father.

‘“Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that you're giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you”’.

Matthew 6:3-4, NIV

We don't know what that reward is; it's not defined. We mustn't think that we're in a contractual relationship with God - that he has to bless us, if we give money to the poor, or indeed give money to the church. Some Christian teachers, and some ministries, teach that if you give money to them, then God is forced to bless you in a particular way. That's not exactly what the New Testament says. In this context, the New Testament says, if you're giving to the poor, your Father will reward you. You have to trust him to know what that reward will be. It's not a promise that if you give that money to the poor, you're going to get that money back - or that money plus a percentage, an extra bonus. It doesn't say that. It is an act of faith to give your money to the poor. You trust God to meet your needs. He'll reward you, and his rewards will either come in a material sense or they'll come in a spiritual sense in terms of real peace with him and real positivity in your relationship with them because you know you've been obedient. Those rewards might come in eternity, where you will get honour from God your Father for the things you've done in this life. We don't know exactly when and how those rewards come. Christian discipleship is based fundamentally on walking with God, relating to our heavenly Father, and seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Giving to the Poor Today

This issue of giving to the poor is incredibly important in our world today. We live in a very divided world. Every country has very big distinctions between the rich and the poor. Poverty generally, in the world, is very widespread. There are many reasons why people are poor. Many of the growing churches in the world are situated in very impoverished countries. For example, in Latin America, or in Central America, or in sub-Saharan Africa, or in the Indian subcontinent - just to take some major examples. There are, of course, others. Poverty is an ever present reality. For those churches in the developed world and in the Western world, the situation is different. We have affluence, generally speaking, in our countries. That can be a tremendous temptation and take us away from true discipleship. So we interpret this call to be generous to the poor, in the context of a world of many great inequalities.

We should be generous to the poor who are in our immediate community, and we should be generous to the poor through giving to churches which give to the poor and give to people in need. We should be generous to the poor, in the sense of sharing our resources between richer and poorer Christians, richer and poorer churches. This is something that happened in the New Testament, and we see, for example, not just individuals giving generously but we see Paul travelling around, calling upon whole churches to take collections in richer areas, in order to give money to poorer churches in different areas. For example, Paul took a collection in Greece and Macedonia from some of his churches that he planted there, in order to help Jewish Christians in Judea and Jerusalem because of severe famine and difficult economic circumstances that they were facing. Here was an opportunity for the richer to give to the poorer, and that's what they did in that situation that Paul oversaw in his apostolic ministry. Jesus knew that poverty was going to be an ever present reality, and nothing has changed over 2000 years since Jesus' ministry.

In some respects, poverty is becoming a more intense issue in the 21st century, with very swift rise of world population, particularly in developing countries; with many changes in our climate that are affecting agricultural production and economic activity in many countries; with constant threat of warfare with a huge number of refugees in our world today - one of the highest numbers of refugees registered at any time in modern history, even as I'm speaking today. These words have a tremendous significance and what they suggest to us is that the income of a Christian should always be considered in the light of the need of others. Every family, every individual, every household should be considering how to share their goods and their finances with other people on a regular basis, listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit within them, prompting them to give gifts to those in need. As I'm speaking now, the world is in the grip of the coronavirus crisis which will last a number of years, and will cause severe economic circumstances. This will affect, and is affecting, many churches in many parts of the world - another severe cause of poverty in our current situation in the nations in the early part of the 21st century.


Jesus' teachings are incredibly important but they're incredibly simple. Although, in other parts of the New Testament, we're encouraged to give money to churches, and I would support that very strongly, Jesus starts teaching about giving in terms of the needy and the poor, and encouraging us not to neglect them and turn away from them, neither to give publicly but to give secretly so that it's only God who knows and it's he who rewards us. This process of regular giving of money to people in need, by whatever method is appropriate, has an incredible effect on the heart of the individual disciple. It constantly releases us from that sense that money is controlling us and that we need to accumulate everything we possibly can. Even if our income is very modest, just giving very small amounts of money to people, sharing that money is an incredibly powerful way of strengthening our discipleship. As Jesus looked in the Temple treasury, he saw that widow who just put in a few very small coins and he could see the generosity within her. It's the generosity, and the heart for other people, that God our Father rewards.

Thank you for listening to this episode as we've looked at the first of the three religious practices that Jesus was re-interpreting from Judaism into Christian discipleship. The fundamental point here is that we don't give money to other people publicly, we do it privately. He'll make the same point we'll see in the next episode, when it comes to prayer. Prayer is essentially private and its private prayer that God our Father rewards. The same thing applies to fasting, which will be the episode that follows that one. There's a theme running all the way through. I'll look forward to seeing you again for our next episode and thanks for listening today.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Giving to the poor was part of Judaism. How important was the need to give to the poor in that society? What about your society today?
  • Discipleship
    1. What should be your motivation to give?
    2. In what ways can giving strengthen your faith?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Giving to the poor was one of the parts of Judaism. What are the other two?
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